2009 Movies

2012

I don’t know what it is about watching the destruction of our planet or iconic U.S.landmarks that entices people to movie theaters, but “disaster” flicks tend to fare well at the box office.  2012 is no exception, having opened at number 1, although a movie like this usually gets released during the summer.

You’ve undoubtedly heard of the apocalyptic notion that according to the Mayan calendar, the world’s expiration date is December 21, 2012.  That’s when the Earth will move and sort of “purge” itself so it can begin anew.  2012 represents the visual representation of this doomsday prediction.  There are people who actually believe this.  I don’t really believe it, but when that date arrives in three years I will be a little nervous, I’ll admit.  I don’t exactly want to go the way of the dinosaurs at the age of 33.  I digress.

There’s not much to tell you about the plot of this movie – what you see is what you get.  The world’s ending and John Cusack and his family are trying to escape to one of the government-approved “ships” that will be used to preserve humanity and revive civilization.  The world’s governments have sold seats aboard these vessels to the wealthiest citizens, strategically choosing to leave everyone else in the dark.  Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, a middling writer and father of two. Jackson’s ex-wife and two children live inLos Angeles, with her new husband Gordon. Jacksonhas a strained relationship with his son, who seems to prefer Gordon’s company – a point that becomes important later in the movie asJacksongets to be a hero.

The movie boasts a pretty good cast, including supremely talented Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster), Danny Glover, and Thandie Newton, who also were in Beloved together.  Glover is the President,Newton is his daughter.  The movie begins with Ejiofor, in the role of a geologist named Adrian Helmsley.  Helmsley learns of the Earth’s demise in 2009, giving the powers-that-be three years to prepare.  During this period, anyone who learns of the impending disaster and tries to inform the masses is permanently silenced.  Conspiracy theorists will probably enjoy this movie because it depicts the notion that when the you-know-what hits the fan, it’s every man for himself.  Helmsley and his colleagues know that the Earth’s sun showers will reach a critical level, heating the its core and causing tectonic shifts that will bring about worldwide earthquakes and tsunamis.  When Doomsday arrives the end begins inCalifornia, with the San Andreas Fault shifting, leading to a series of massive earthquakes asCalifornia literally breaks off into the ocean.  Wow.  The best thing about a movie like this is the special effects, which were amazing.  Buildings crumple and streets ripple as humanity perishes.  Meanwhile inWashington, the White House activates its contingency plan.  The President elects to stay behind with the people, as Adrian and his daughter prepare to escape aboard one of the ships.

I’ll be honest with you. 2012 was a decent movie.  Go see it if you like these types of movies.  I think that if you’ve seen one disaster movie, you’ve seen them all.  Independence Day, Armageddon, whatever.  Add 2012 to the mix.  The acting was adequate, but that’s not really the point of popcorn fare like this.  The goal is to entertain and dazzle with special effects, and director Roland Emmerich achieved that goal.  He also directed Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow.  My only criticism is that the movie was nothing new.  Been there, done that.  Emmerich’s own catalogue reflects that 2012 is nothing new.  The Apocalypse angle has been done time and time again.  The Mayan calendar angle is unique, but the depiction is largely the same.  The special effects were good, but I’d only check this out if you think that alone is worth the price of admission. I didn’t.

This article first appeared at www.poptimal.com and was reprinted with permission.

The Box

Wow.  I’m sorry to say that I was very disappointed with The Box.  Why?  Because there was so much potential.  So many movies have the psychological, suspenseful underpinnings that would make for an excellent film, but something goes awry in the execution.  The Box intrigued me not only with its premise, which I’ll explain in a minute, but also with its offer to see Cameron Diaz in a heftier role, a marked departure from the light and airy romantic-comedy fare she usually puts out.  Not since Vanilla Sky can I recall Diaz trying her hand at something that doesn’t require her to punctuate her lines with a goofy giggle.

The Box, directed by Richard Kelly, is based on the short story “Button, Button” by Isaac Asimov.  I nearly choked when I found out Kelly also directed Donnie Darko, one of the most intriguing, darkly unique movies of the past twenty years.  He brought the same eerie sense of foreboding to The Box that he employed in Donnie Darko, but that’s where the similarities end.   Darko, an instant classic, should not be mentioned in the same sentence with The Box.  The movie, set in 1976, is premised on the notion that every decision has consequences.  Diaz and James Marsden (X-Men) star as Arthur and Norma Lewis, a relatively young couple with a son of about 10.  The Lewis’ lead an ordinary life, but have encountered a few professional and financial setbacks recently.  Norma, a schoolteacher, learns that her employer will no longer offer an employee discount for tuition.  Meanwhile Arthur, a NASA employee, learns that he is unfit to be an astronaut after failing the psychological exam.  Norma also suffers from a foot deformity that causes a pronounced limp.  These early revelations, coupled with the very stark cinematography, created an eerie, uneasy feeling that left me anxious.  And that’s before Creepy Dude even shows up.  Let me backtrack for a second.  Within the first ten minutes of the movie, the mysterious box is left on the Lewis’ doorstep before we are made aware of its purpose or the couple’s financial hardships.  A note explains that Mr. Arlington Steward will return the following day at 5:00 to explain the box’s purpose.  Steward is played by Frank Langella, a man who has scared me ever since an old movie called Brainscan.  He also dated Whoopi Goldberg, that’s pretty scary too.  Anyway, Steward’s face has been horribly disfigured due to a freak accident where he was struck by lightning and burned.  So he shows up on Norma’s doorstep and she tries to hide her shock at his appearance.  After inviting him in, he explains that the box contains another wooden box with a button inside and a key.  If the button is pressed, Steward will give Norma and her husband one million dollars in cash, which he demonstrates by opening a briefcase with the money inside.  He extracts one crisp hundred dollar bill and gives it to her as a token of his appreciation for her courtesy.  In the movies, and in life, you never get something for nothing.  When the button is pressed, someone in the world that the Lewis’ don’t know will die.  They don’t know who or how.  They have 24 hours to decide.  If they don’t press the button, Steward will collect the box in 24 hours and present the offer to someone else.  If they do press the button he will return with the money.  It’s never explained or revealed how he will know if they actually press the button.

When Arthur comes home Norma explains the whole story, and he is predictably in disbelief.  Even if Steward and the box are the real deal, Arthur is hesitant about pressing the button.  He wonders “what if it’s someone’s baby?”  Norma counters with “what if it’s a murderer on death row?”  They are both on the fence, saying that it’s a mutual decision.  They stare at the box miserably, in a state of confusion – but of course someone is going to press the button or we wouldn’t have a movie.  Norma impulsively reaches out and presses the button.  Steward shows up with the money later as promised, but now the Lewis’ are freaking out.  Arthur tries to give the money back, but of course it’s too late.  His wife’s desperation has set them on a fateful course that cannot be altered.

What follows next is a truly bizarre series of events that at times takes the movie from suspense, to horror, to sci-fi, and even fantasy.  It was a hodgepodge of genres and a collection of disjointed scenes.  Richard Kelly plays up the NASA angle, and it seems that Steward might be an agent of the state or a supernatural being.  Is he conducting an experiment, is he the devil, is he an alien?  At various times all of these possibilities seem viable.  The movie was very poor in some places, and just okay in others.  Again, the premise was awesome, but the storyline faltered and the acting was spotty.  I wanted to like Cameron Diaz, and I almost did.  Her accent was contrived and she seemed to be trying too hard at times, though she did have a few good scenes.  To her credit, Norma never once seemed like a heartless, greedy character – despite willingly allowing the demise of another human being for her own financial gain.  Maybe it was the deformity that humanized her, but she just seemed desperate and sympathetic.  Arthur was also a sympathetic character, a man who was just trying to protect his family.  I won’t reveal what the real ramifications of pressing the button were, but they were tragic.  This was a very difficult movie to review because it was truly weird.  It also seemed like certain pages of the script were just plain missing.  Where were the transition scenes, why wasn’t the movie more seamless? I’ll give you an example that won’t spoil anything.  At one point Norma and their son Walter are abducted.  Arthur is ostensibly going to rescue them. However, we never see the rescue! One minute an unconscious Norma is being held over a swimming pool, the next minute she’s reunited with Arthur. They are back in their kitchen.  Must have been quite a rescue because they’re soaked, dirty, and disheveled, but we never see the rescue! Are you kidding me??  The guy who made Donnie Darko is responsible for this movie?? I’m stunned.  In addition to slapdash editing, certain phenomena were introduced and then abandoned.  There’s nothing left to say.  The Box was a very disappointing movie that had all the potential in the world but fell woefully short of expectations.

This article first appeared at www.poptimal.com and was reprinted with permission.

 

Law Abiding Citizen

Revenge is a dish best served cold, but I don’t think Gerard Butler (Gamer, The Ugly Truth) got the memo. You see, he likes to serve it up boiling hot. In Law Abiding Citizen he portrays Clyde Shelton, a man who is victimized twice. First by the brutes who savagely murder his family right before his eyes, and then again by a misguided justice system, represented by an ambivalent district attorney. Jamie Foxx (The Kingdom, The Soloist) plays district attorney Nick Rice, a prosecutor more concerned with his winning percentage than attaining real justice for Shelton.

Shelton watched helplessly as his family fell victim to a gruesome home invasion, and was nearly killed himself. He’s pleased when the district attorney tells him that one of the perpetrators will get the death penalty, but that relief is short-lived. The other perpetrator who delivered the actual death blows will only serve a few years in prison because he cut a deal. Rice informs Shelton that this is better than going to trial, where acquittal is always a possibility. He actually made the deal without even consulting Shelton beforehand. Feeling ignored and helpless, the wheels are set in motion for Shelton to avenge his family’s murder and his own shabby treatment. He bides his time and then brings the pain in a way that is both horrific and creative. Think Joker in The Dark Knight mixed with Jigsaw from the Saw movies. I’ve told you all that and still haven’t told you anything you didn’t gather from the trailer, so don’t worry. The suspense lies not in what Shelton does, but in how he does it. He allows himself to be apprehended and imprisoned, but still manages to wreak havoc on those with the most tangential connection to the atrocity carried out on his family.

Jamie Foxx is serviceable in this role, but I can’t say he was impressive. I don’t think the role required much, and he did show flashes of charisma, but Butler was a more compelling figure. I also don’t view this movie as a Jamie Foxx vehicle, rather it seems more like this was just a movie that he was in, if that makes any sense. He received top billing and has the hardware to back it up, so I want to be riveted by him, and that was not the case. Nevertheless, Law Abiding Citizen is a movie most will enjoy. It taps into the frustration we have with an ineffective criminal justice system and the vigilante that lies within all of us. Make no mistake though, Shelton is no hero. We all can understand avenging the death of a child, and Foxx’s character even commends him privately for his actions, at first. Things go awry when Shelton begins to target those less directly associated with his family’s murder and begins to kill innocent people to bring down the larger bureaucracy. This made for an intriguing anti-hero dynamic, as it’s unclear for whom the viewer should cheer. Shelton avenges his family’s death, but is still committing cold-blooded murder so you can only root for him up to a point. Rice is supposed to be the “good guy” lawman, but he clearly dropped the ball with Shelton’s case, so you can’t exactly cheer for him either. Director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator, Set it Off) makes a nice return to the silver screen and is an underrated filmmaker. He has proven adept at sustaining suspense throughout a movie without overdoing the cheap tricks like Michael Bay. A well-placed explosion is great, but the primary focus should be on the story, and Gray steadily advanced the plot. All in all, Law Abiding Citizen is worth the $10, and I give it my stamp of approval.

This article first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2009/10/law-abiding-citizen/ and was reprinted with permission.

Gamer

I would like my $8.50 and 95 minutes back. Despite its intriguing premise and provocative plot, Gamer fell short of expectations. The potential existed for a thought-provoking exploration of the darker side of human nature; instead I witnessed a hedonistic exercise in depravity.

Gamer
takes place in the not-so-distant future, in a world where consumers can take gaming to the next level. Are you familiar with The Sims, a game that allows you to manipulate characters’ lives and create your own society? Well, imagine if that were real. Imagine if you were playing a video game whose characters represented actual human beings. Sounds pretty cool, right? Not so much. Once the movie delved deeper into its premise it exposed an underbelly of humanity that I’d rather not see. Gerard Butler (300, The Ugly Truth) stars as Kable, a prisoner who is forced to compete in a real-life video game called “Slayers.” He is being controlled by a teen named Simon, a rich kid with every expensive toy imaginable at his fingertips. The object of Slayers is to shoot your way of each battle zone and to survive 30 such battles so that you can be released from prison. Obviously no one would do this shit willingly, but the prisoners don’t have much choice. They have been implanted with a microchip of some sort called a nanex, which ensures their compliance. The creator of Slayers, and another Sims-like game called “Society,” is a nefarious Bill Gates-type named Ken Castle, played by Michael Hall of Dexter. Castle is ridiculously rich, profiting from the public’s desire to manipulate real human lives. His game Society allows you to make real people have sex, fight, use drugs – you name it. You get paid for participating in the game as a character, and you have to pay to play. Kable has become a cult hero, a global superstar, because he is only three battles away from being the first character to survive Slayers. He has won 27 battles. Most prisoners don’t win more than 10. Simon, his player, has also gained a high level of notoriety. He is the one controlling Kable, after all. Things go awry when an organized human resistance rises up against Castle, who has larger designs on taking over the minds of regular human beings instead of just the prisoners in his game. Ludacris is the leader of the resistance, an organization called Humanz. Anyway, they hack into the Slayers game and allow Simon and Kable to communicate directly. They also tell Kable that Castle has a secret to keep and will never allow Kable to survive the game the old-fashioned way; he’ll have to escape. First he has to be released from Simon’s control. Kable persuades Simon to release him and begins his escape. Back in the real world he has a wife and daughter waiting for him. First he has to get past another prisoner inserted in the game to kill him. *sigh*

The details are non-sensical and the plot becomes more and more ridiculous. I know that most movies require suspension of belief, but Gamer became over the top. Now that I know it was written and directed by the duo that brought us Crank, I understand the high level of absurdity. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor obviously like the idea of people behaving wildly violently and sexually without consequences. They don’t portray it thoughtfully or intelligently, they prefer it gratuitous and pointless. Violence for violence’s sake. I personally don’t enjoy that, which is why Gamer was just not my type of movie. A movie like Kill Bill was certainly violent, but it was done smartly. There’s a right way and wrong way to do it. Quite simply, Gamer was all wrong. I wanted to press the re-set button on this game, and I couldn’t get out of the theater fast enough. Gerard Butler ably portrayed Kable, but I found the material to be questionable. Gamer was a disgusting movie that offered nothing of value. The material was ripe for social and psychological commentary, but Neveldine and Taylor obviously had no such designs.

This article first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2009/09/gamer/ and was reprinted with permission.

Extract

I saw Extract on the same day I saw Gamer, so that means I was 0 for 2. Extract was the better of the two, but still left a bitter taste in my mouth. Hyped as being brought to us by the creators of Office Space, Extract tricked me with the old bait n’ switch. I thought it would be hilarious, especially when I saw Jason Bateman cough out that huge bong rip in the trailer. The movie had its moments, but overall it didn’t amount to much more than a few chuckles.

The setting is an extract factory owned by Bateman’s character Joel, a regular hard-working guy who has all the trappings of the American Dream but is stuck in a dull, sexless marriage. When a scheming new temp with a checkered past named Cindy (Mila Kunis) begins working at the plant, Joel’s eye begins to wander. His stoner buddy Dean (Ben Affleck) encourages him to make the most of this potential new opportunity. Joel’s a good guy, so Dean devises a plan to get his wife Suzie to cheat first, thereby giving Joel a “free pass.” The scheme is pretty funny, but its execution becomes a little silly. Meanwhile, Joel’s attempt to seal the deal with Cindy never quite comes to fruition, at least not the way he intended. Most of the action takes place at the extract plant, which employs an array of funny characters, including a gossiping busy-body and an incompetent rocker. Creator Mike Judge (King of the Hill) is adept at playing the mundane workplace atmosphere for giggles, but the movie loses its way by making Joel such a bland character. He’s a pretty weak guy who behaves inexplicably. When he finds out his wife has cheated on him he’s angry but he never displays the rage, shock, or disbelief her infidelity warrants. I just didn’t get it. The movie’s plot centers on whether or not Joel will sell the plant, but most of the movie deals with the interpersonal relationships between him and his wife, Dean, and his employees at the plant. Mila Kunis is appealing as the object of everyone’s desire, but she behaves almost as inexplicably as Joel. A con-artist, she begins working at the plant to weasel her way into the life of Step, an employee who was injured in a hilarious freak accident on the job and stands to profit handsomely. With dollar signs in her eyes, she “accidentally” bumps into Step at the grocery store and begins her efforts to become his girlfriend and set up a big score through a lawsuit. Step would rather settle amicably out of court, but Cindy encourages him to milk the accident for all it’s worth. The potential lawsuit threatens to derail Joel’s plans to sell the plant, unless he can get to the bottom of Step’s recent change of heart.

Affleck was funny as Joel’s douchebag sidekick, but Extract’s occasional laughs aren’t enough for me to endorse it. It seems like writers think it’s okay to sacrifice plot and good storytelling just because the movie is a comedy. Joel needed more of a backbone, and a lot of his actions didn’t make sense. Not bad for a few laughs, but Extract never quite reaches its full potential. I’d wait for Netflix.

Inglourious Basterds

Yo, I don’t toss around the ‘G’ word often, but Quentin Tarantino might be a genius. The dude is an awesome filmmaker. When I watch one of his movies I appreciate its undeniable coolness but also its subtle brilliance and attention to detail. Inglourious Basterds was a marvelous showcase of all the little touches that make Tarantino’s films memorable, including the intensive dialogue, unabashed female adoration, and even the inevitable hint of racism.

Set against war-torn Paris during Hitler’s reign, Basterds is the story of a young girl’s survival and ultimate vengeance. It also chronicles the exploits of a guerilla military outfit, the Basterds. Helmed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the men plow their way through Nazis like a lawnmower through grass. They hack, peel and bludgeon every Nazi they encounter, and they all pledge one hundred Nazi scalps to the Lieutenant. And yeah, these dudes literally peel the scalps off. *shudder* The parallel storyline involves a young girl named Shoshana and the amoral Nazi Colonel that executed her family. The execution is the movie’s gripping first sequence and it was amazing. I love the way Tarantino controls the pacing and the way his characters interact with one another. There is an extended scene where two characters are simply having a quiet conversation over a glass of milk. Sounds harmless right? No, and that is because an invisible air of dread wafted into the scene and settled like dust. You knew something bad was about to happen, you just didn’t know how it would play out. I was on the edge of my seat, hanging on their every word. That’s because Tarantino can turn the mundane into the mesmerizing. Shoshana’s family was executed before her eyes, and she was the sole survivor. She flees the scene of their carnage, her face a mask of terror. At this moment she and Colonel Lander AKA the “Jew Hunter” become natural adversaries, an animal and its prey. Fast forward four years later and their paths cross again.

There were so many great scenes in this movie, scenes that made my heart stop. You’re lucky if you get one of those in a movie, and Inglourious Basterds was chock full. Tarantino managed to inject humor in the oddest situations and made it work. He made a Nazi movie funny, yet Inglourious Basterds cannot be classified as a comedy. It defies categorization, so don’t even try, just sit back and enjoy it. I can’t recount the plot without getting bogged-down with the intricacy of the storyline, but suffice to say that this is a movie you don’t want to miss unless you are impossibly squeamish. It got a little gory at times, especially when one of the Basterds practices baseball with a Nazi’s head. But if you can get past that you’re in for the best movie of the summer. Brad Pitt was excellent as the merciless Raine, and you can tell he had a ball with this role. It’s like I almost expected him to break the fourth wall at any moment, turn to the camera and say, “is this fucking cool or what?” Yes Brad, yes it is.

From the word go until the closing credits, Inglourious Basterds is riveting. Suspenseful, heart-wrenching, funny, and brilliant, it is right up there with Tarantino’s best and solidifies his place in the pantheon of great American filmmakers. Get up on it.

G.I. Joe

Ok so I heard the buzz about G.I. Joe before I watched it, and opinions seemed to be mixed. This baffles me, because I thought the movie was pretty effin’ dope. Good visuals, lots of action and special effects, and it wasn’t too corny. That’s more than I can say for Transformers 2. I could even follow the plot, which I appreciated. I hate when these types of movies take themselves too seriously with the convoluted high brow storyline. Just blow shit up.

Starring Channing Tatum (Stop-Loss) as Duke and Marlon Wayans (Dance Flick) as Ripcord, the story begins with our soldiers escorting high level weaponry to its destination. The two are not members of the Joes yet, but they are military personnel. The weapons contain agents called nanocytes, little cell-like critters that were first introduced to fight cancer. They can attack metal and level a city within several minutes. They were manufactured by M.A.R.S., a private arms company helmed by McCullen, a European magnate, the last in a long line of military spies. They are ambushed en route, severely overmatched and outnumbered. Taking heavy fire, they are unable to protect the weapons from the would-be thieves, an outfit comprised of highly- skilled soldiers. Enter the Baroness, a leather-clad dominatrix-looking chick with a mean kick. She and Duke have a past, and he refers to her by name. Her lingering loyalty gives her pause, and she spares his life. Meanwhile the G.I. Joes have arrived to intercept the thieves (COBRA). They retrieve the weapons and the stage is set for Duke and Ripcord to join the most elite, covert operation comprised of the best and brightest soldiers from each branch of the military. General Hawk commands the Joes, and is impressed with Duke and Ripcord. After surviving the rigors of training, they are officially “Joes,” and their first task is to protect the weapons and avenge their fallen comrades before COBRA can steal the weapons back. In the mix is McCullen, creator of the weapons but also in league with COBRA, unbeknownst to the Joes.

As the story moves along we are introduced to various figures from the cartoon series, and I always get a kick out of the real-life depiction of an animated character. They even threw in the corny one-liners from the show like “knowing is half the battle.” It kinda worked but I had to roll my eyes when I heard it. Anyway, I have to say that from a visual standpoint, G.I. Joe was a treat. I got that same feeling I had when I saw the first X-Men or the first Spiderman: that I was witnessing something pretty damn cool. The movie didn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. Nothing based on a cartoon should ever be held up as a paragon of cinematic storytelling, but it was very good movie, and if you go into it with reasonable expectations I don’t think you’ll leave disappointed. This is the second movie based on an 80’s cartoon, and I think it was certainly as good as Transformers, and even better than the sequel. There was a delicate balance between plot and action, and everything was expertly explained, whether through flashback or exposition. Particularly compelling was the back-story between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes. They trained side-by-side as adoptive brothers until a jealous, evil act permanently tore them apart. Oh yeah, and good guys wear black and bad guys wear white in this movie. Gotta love that. Regarding the performances, as I said there was some corny dialogue but for the most part the movie was sharp throughout. Channing Tatum is a one-note actor, but again – he’s playing a cartoon character. How seriously can I take him? The movie boasts a pretty decent cast that includes Dennis Quaid as Hawk and Sienna Miller as the Baroness. They actually allowed Miller to fill out her leather pantsuit rather than adopt the waiflike appearance she’s sported in past movies, another nice touch. I get tired of looking at someone the size of Angelina Jolie and being expected to believe that she can kick someone’s ass. Both the Baroness and Scarlett looked like real women rather than toothpicks, which I appreciated. Cool toys? Check. Ass-kickin’? Check. I can’t wait for the sequel.

This article first appeard at http://poptimal.com/2009/08/g-i-joe/ and was reprinted with permission.